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Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony no. 5 in E minor op. 64 [55: 43]
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra/Sergiu Celibidache
rec. live 29 May 1991, Philharmonie am Gasteig, Munich
Authorized CD-R of deleted EMI material with photocopied complete original booklet
EMI CLASSICS CDC 5565222 [58:26]


The most important work in the very small batch of studio recordings Celibidache set down for Decca in the late 1940s with the London Philharmonic Orchestra was Tchaikovsky 5. I don’t know this recording and the only relatively early example known to me of Celibidache conducting a Tchaikovsky symphony is the Pathétique (Milan 1960). This shows that he was taking unusual interpretative solutions in Tchaikovsky even then – while in many other composers his approach was still “normal”. To tell the truth I never liked the performance much and as it’s not strictly comparable with the present disc I haven’t gone back to test my reactions. I have already recorded my mixed reactions to the late Celibidache manner as applied to composers other than Bruckner and I have to say I approached with some misgivings a performances which is longer by over 13 minutes than my much-loved Mravinsky.

Just to give some idea of the sheer originality of this performance, here are some timings:













Furtwängler (Turin 1952)






Horenstein (Philharmonia)






Koussevitzky (Boston 1944)






Mravinsky (2nd DG version)






Silvestri (Philharmonia)






The booklet timings do not correspond to those read by my computer, which are longer in every case. However, I have taken  them on trust since the pauses between movements have been retained with subdued coughing, shuffling, surreptitious tuning etc. I believe the booklet timings correspond to the actual music and are therefore a better comparison with the other mostly studio performances.

** This would appear to be the fastest performance of all, but I do not remember it to be so. I would have to check but I think Furtwängler applied some once-traditional cuts, also made by Mengelberg and, I understand, Schmidt-Isserstedt and Sargent. 

I also have Markevich (Philips) and Fricsay (DG) on LP, so no timings, but I’d say the tensely dramatic Markevich is close to Mravinsky while Fricsay is more “European”, with a fairly expansive slow movement. It can be seen that Mravinsky – and I think Markevich – are alone in their fiercely driven approach with little let-up even in the “Andante cantabile”. However, with the sole exception of Furtwängler’s third movement, nobody else comes remotely close to Celibidache’s expansiveness.

Celibidache himself would have been scathing about the idea that a list of timings can tell us anything useful. I nevertheless suggest that this table shows, at least, that while we may reasonably make comparisons between the other conductors, Celibidache has to be taken sui generis.

So, having set out with certain preconceptions against the performance, I have to say it was a total revelation.

The slow introduction is long-breathed and takes all of three minutes. It can be seen very clearly how the tempo is not a dogmatic imposition which the conductor then tries to justify with phrasing detailed enough to hold the interest. Rather, the tempo is a consequence of the long crescendos and diminuendos, of the infinite shades of nuance. The tempo is simply the space which allows these things to happen.

The “Allegro con anima” creeps in gently with phrasing that is beautifully tender yet sprung with balletic lightness. Such is the variation in timbre and the give and take between the orchestral departments that ultimately the tempo is not perceived as slow at all. The climaxes have a dramatic force without any inclination to press ahead.

It has to be made very clear, with regard to the second movement, that this is not a narcissistic emotional wallow, such as late Bernstein could sometimes indulge in. The ear is caressed by the vocal quality of the phrasing and the music speaks of love and compassion, not self-pity. I found I was not so much listening to Celibidache-conducts-Tchaikovsky, I felt that Tchaikovsky was speaking to me directly. The dramatic return of the motto theme in this movement has a quite devastating impact.

The Valse is very gentle and tender. It may be a “Valse lente” but the rhythm of the dance is always there. While the violin semiquavers impressed under Mengelberg by the brilliance of their articulation, here they impress by dynamic gradations expressed with a unanimity you would hardly believe possible from an entire string section, however many rehearsals they have had.

The finale, after a broad start, sets up a pounding rhythm which belies the fact that, timed by the clock, it is pretty slow. The secondary material fits into this tempo without sounding rushed, as it often does. The ending is incredibly powerful. It is notable how Celibidache paces it with little crescendos and diminuendos so that it becomes more and more colossal as it reaches its final climax.

This ending has sometimes been criticised as a hollow triumph. Does Celibidache make things better or worse by giving it such terrific weight?

Obviously, I cannot know what Tchaikovsky had in mind nor how Celibidache interpreted Tchaikovsky’s intentions. In most performances, the effect is that the motto theme, which is brooding and doom-laden at the beginning, which brutally interrupts the slow movement and which imposes itself dolefully on the closing stages of the Valse, returns at the end as a personal triumph by the composer. He has apparently regained his optimism at the last moment. Looked at this way, I can understand the criticisms made of it. In this performance, however, it seems a triumph, certainly, but a triumph of inexorable destiny which marches in to engulf everything. The symphony therefore emerges no less devastatingly tragic than the Pathétique itself.

I haven’t always welcomed the decision taken in this series to leave the spaces between movements exactly as they were in the concert, with all the extraneous noises that entails. In this case I actually felt I needed a moment or two of relaxation before continuing.

As I write I am still shattered by this performance. I have never belonged to the fraternity which likes to be snooty about Tchaikovsky 5 just because it’s so popular. But I had never imagined that the work could convey so much.

Even so, doubts begin to assail me. If I listen again, knowing what I am going to hear, will I undergo the same emotional experience, or just an intellectual appreciation of the means by which it was achieved? Would the slow tempi be equally convincing the second time round? In other words, would Celibidache’s noted suspicions of the recording process be proved correct? Namely, would I have to admit that any performance is a single event and, if a recording of it can reproduce the occasion at all, it can do so only once?

Alternatively, would I become so enthralled by the time-span of this performance that all others would appear slick and superficial? I have not tried listening to other performances for the moment. Frankly, I have no wish to discover that much-loved versions like that of Mravinsky have lost their appeal, and I think that this will not be so if I wait a little while before returning to them. I think, though, that my perceptions of this work can never be the same again.

So what is my recommendation? Those few who had the privilege of actually attending a Celibidache performance of this symphony should maybe just cherish the memory, as the conductor would have preferred. For the rest, a disc capable of communicating such a great experience cannot be ignored. Buy it, but treat it as a unique experience. Do not try to compare it with others and do not return to it too soon.

Christopher Howell






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